Chris Netherton, M.D.

“Shall we play a game?”


Computer gaming technology could have an important role to play in the future of healthcare. This idea is not as far-fetched as it may at first appear.

The quote in the headline to this blog comes from the famous science fiction movie, War Games. In this story, the teenage hero uses his skills at gaming to outwit a Pentagon computer that has ‘gone rogue’ and is threatening to start a global thermonuclear war…

Today, gaming with an equally serious purpose is finding new applications in modern healthcare. And this isn’t science fiction. It’s already a reality.

In the Netherlands, D’mentia is an immersive ‘game’ simulation designed to take people deep inside  the world of someone living with dementia. By using this arresting form of role playing, the designers hope to increase understanding of this disease and to encourage people to provide more sympathetic care to any sufferers within their family group.

At St Louis University in the USA, a team of medical specialists has devised a virtual reality programme called ‘The Science of Healing.’ They have used 3D scans of organs such as the brain, heart and kidneys to create highly detailed visual models of what an operation site looks like. Surgeons can then put on virtual reality headsets to explore these sites. Although they may appear to be ‘gaming’, they are in fact carrying out mental rehearsals for the intricate procedures they need to perform.

By practicing in this way, surgeons can increase the chances of success when the real operation is carried out. Not only does this improve patient safety, but any training programme that reduces time spent in the operating theatre has a major benefit in terms of cost reduction. Human beings are programmed by nature to use ‘play’ to learn and to develop new skills, but never has such play had a more important benefit.

Project EVO is an interactive video game developed in the USA that has been designed as a ‘digital therapy’ for sufferers of ADHD. Users play the role of a sprite that has to venture across a frozen world and fulfil a number of different quests. The clever part is that EVO uses adaptive algorithms to constantly gear these challenges to the specific needs of the patient. EVO is now undergoing clinical trials and, if these are successful, it could in future be prescribed by doctors. Imagine a scenario where a young ADHD sufferer, rather than being given a course of powerful mind-altering drugs, is instead prescribed a course of computer games!

There are other examples. Dutch company IJsfontein has developed a VR programme that teaches trainee doctors how to assess and treat patients with acute conditions. This means that they can be trained without a senior doctor having to be present. US company Pear Therapeutics has created game software to help treat substance use disorder, as part of an outpatient programme. This has already been cleared by the FDA, making this the very first time that gaming software has been approved to treat a disorder. Patients can now download the app on to their smartphone.

Computer games have often been criticised for their immersive and ‘addictive’ properties. It is fascinating to see how they are now being employed to enhance people’s health.

As these new approaches find their way into mainstream medicine, they will begin to change the landscape for companies like Microtest who specialise in clinical software. For example, our team has spent many months developing Open Evolution, our new hosted solution which we believe will be the most ‘future proof’ practice management system available. Open Evolution is designed to help practices work to their full potential in the new era of interoperability and collaboration. As part of the project, there has been a massive focus on designing the user interface so that it is as intuitive and engaging to use as possible – which is really important when you consider the many working hours that practice staff spend interacting with our software.

Microtest has already had formative meetings with suppliers of AI systems so that in the near future Open Evolution, underpinned by this new technology, will be able to learn from clinicians using the system, to check that the patient care pathway and treatment are optimal and clinically safe.

We are also investigating new kinds of online training for users of our clinical software.

In the future, the influence of gaming could change the way that clinical software interfaces are configured. Gameplay is designed to make the user experience totally engaging, to allow people to develop their skills quickly and intuitively, and to adjust to the needs of the individual user so that they are constantly challenged to move to ‘the next level’ in terms of their ability. It is likely that learnings from this field will continue to be applied more widely.

What an amazing time this is to be working in healthcare technology.